February 10, 2007

Blogfocus is out

James has put another blogfocus out- he has put out an all woman edition- so go read these entries

Race in Greece and Rome

Greece and Rome can often seem very foreign places to any historian looking at them- for all kinds of concepts, democracy, republicanism, rulership, imperial power, citizenship and freedom, we derive our understanding from them but we have changed the meaning of the concept and often as in the case of democracy the meaning of the word that they bequeathed us. Sometimes it pays though to look back to see how features of our own society are neither permanent nor inevitable, but local variations which have occured in this time and place, and which may in the future fade away as our era passes.

One of the most interesting recent intellectual discoveries of mine was just such a concept- that seems vital and often vicious in the modern world but didn't really trouble the ancient world. James Dee wrote perceptively about this topic in the December 2003 issue of the Classical Journal (I should warn that the article is behind a subscription wall at JSTOR you need an Athens password to access it). He described through a sympathetic analysis of literary sources- from the Odyssey and the Illiad forward to the times of Catullus how in both Latin and Greek words for colour were used to connect to human beings. We know for example that Catullus wrote of Caesar

Nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere
nec sciri utrum sis albus an ater homo

which can be easily transalated, roughly as "I don't care to know whether Caesar you are a black of a white man". Rather an odd line if the Romans thought that Romans were white. Similarly in the Illiad, the Achaeans become white through the dust kicked up by their horses. The Homeric epic uses a word analogous to white, leukolenos, 39 times but every time the bard(s) applied it to a woman and on 24 times to the queen of the Gods Hera- at no point are we told that a man is white. In the Odyssey similarly the words white and black don't denote race but denote gender- so Odysseus himself is at one point described as black. Just look at the vase above and so many Greek vases, where women are white having stayed in doors all day and the men are bronzed by the sun having worked in the fields.

Why should this be so? If you think about it for a moment it becomes almost self evident. For the Greeks and Romans there were two major distinctions within humanity. The Greeks saw themselves as superior to all the other human beings in the world- the rest of the world spoke nonsense, ba baing in their confusion, hence our word barbarion. The second major distinction the Greeks admitted was that between themselves and Slaves. The Romans kept the second distinction, but their definition of the first was more elastic- allowing non-Italians to become citizens of the eternal city. We might summarise this by thinking that in Greece and Rome there were two sorts of people, those who were entitled to be household leaders in a world of city states, those who could run households and be in positions of command- almost all of these people were men and citizens- and those who couldn't, foreigners, slaves, women etc.

But it remains fascinating that race emerged as a category in late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, as the Roman world collapsed, as the Muslims conquered the near East and ruptured the ancient Meditereanean, turning the world on its head. The first Blacks were like Othello the Moors, not Africans necessarily. Race like nationality was invented at a specific point in history by a vast variety of authors and thinkers- but it was probably unknown to the ancient world, consumed in other bigotries. Before that invention though Catullus by saying that Caesar might have been black could have been making a jibe not about his nationality but about his masculinity. Never a poet to turn down a scurrilous jibe- Catullus looked at vases like that above and knew just the way to hurt the General's masculine pride.

Race was long ago exploded as a category for judging human biology- now it seems we might have to see it as a much more recent invention- time to revise the idea that black and white are eternal verities that all human beings have always recognised- they haven't, other divides like that between Hellene and Barbarion, free man and slave, man and woman and of course civis Romanus and foreigner divided the ancient world.

February 08, 2007

One for the Americanists

According to Lee Harris in 1798 John Adams nominated Washington to be commander in chief despite the fact that he was President and the constitution said he was commander in chief- I was just wondering whether anyone could clarify whether this was true and what the status of US law on this issue is? It seems fascinating.

February 07, 2007

Returning to the History and Nationalism

My continuing dialogue with Matthew Sinclair has been interrupted neccessarily by some private family stuff but I do want to continue it. Matthew posted a very interesting reply to my article here- in which he made three crucial points in defence of his original position that it was good to teach national history in schools (the dialogue started with Matthew, I disagreed, Matthew offered some very interesting thoughts here and yet again I responded here).

Part of the problem with writing national history is a problem with all history. Its very easy to take a person and make them part of a grand narrative. Marxist historians were very fond of this in the early twentieth century- they told us that the radicals in the English Civil War were fixated on bringing in democratic utopias- well they weren't, they were far more interested in religious liberation. Conservative historians also tell us this- I frequently hear from conservative friends that everyone before 1800 was a Conservative- an interesting theory given that it was English law until the first decade of the nineteenth century, that goods for which too high a price was charged might be seized at a local market place- as for example they were in 1792 at Preston. Our concerns and our political values are very parochial- they stretch in historical terms to the limits of our temporal village and not much farther. You therefore have to worry about the history of a concept stretching backwards in time and what you are doing to it.

Why do you have to worry? Well I think the issue of nationalism illustrates my worry. Lets take the case of Cnut. Cnut was a Danish prince who came to England and conquered England from its Saxon Kings in 1015. He ruled and his sons ruled after him into the 1040s and he reorganised the administration of the English kingdom and reorganised the upper nobility. Cnut entered onto a society that was ethnically divided- largely English in the South and West and largely Viking in the North and East. Is he a part of a story of the land of England and those that have occupied it (in the neutral sense that I now occupy my bedroom)? Yes he definitely was. Is he part of the history of the English people to whom most modern English people trace decent? Yes of part of them- though many came later than he did and it should be remembered that another part of them he massacred. What connects Cnut to us? Almost certainly not mother tongue, definitely he didn't beleive in any of the values anyone would wish to think of as English today, he would probably have had no idea of what English means. Does it do anything therefore for either us or Cnut to call him English? Personally I doubt it- it doesn't help us understand Cnut- indeed it takes us further away from him.

If we come to Cromwell though we see the problem in an even better light because Cromwell did see himself as English- but what kind of English. Matthew you see doesn't really mean that when he wants to teach people English he wants to teach them a word and confirm that they are it- he also wants to teach them something about that word- otherwise he'll have a problem defining it when they ask him what this 'English' word mean. Well Cromwell beleived that an Englishman was a Protestant who didn't beleive in bishops, was part of an elect nation ressembling Biblical Israel, was the inheritor of a law that dated back to times unknown and which should not be changed at all, had signed an original contract by which he bequeathed his rights to a common store and received out of them the traditional rights of common law feudal Englishmen. That isn't quite the vision that Matthew would hold out for us- so what are we to say when Matthew teaches people that Cromwell was an exemplar of Englishness- what ultimately does the word mean?

I proposed literature rather than history as the best way to think about nationalism and that's really why. Its because I entertain doubts that beyond the physical facts of sharing maybe some genes and a piece of land (though my ancestors share genes with people from Norway and New Zealand as well- and have owned pieces of land around the globe) there isn't much I share with these historical characters. What would Englishness consist of if I were to take Cnut's, Cromwell's and Matthew's idea of Englishness and say they were continuous? If Matthew can show me a coherent concept I'd love to see it.

Art and literature though can present me with a vision of something that I can adhere to- a kind of mythical idea of Englishness- in this way you could argue that mythical characters like Robin Hood and King Arthur are much better characters to base a nationalism around than are Cromwell and Cnut. Robin and Arthur can be twisted to our priorities- they can speak our language- to fit Cromwell or Cnut into our Englishness we either have to deform what we aspire to or to deform the truth of who they were.

Matthew poses a last very sensible question to me which is whether a mild nationalism can ever be successful- whether acknowledging that the nation I love is an emotional construct, built over a political reality, but not itself an existing reality diminishes that love. There are two issues here- firstly Matthew conjures up a world of increasing instability where nationalism no longer bonds and secondly he argues that an emotional bond is always weaker.

Matthew is right in the sense that nation seems to have provided human beings down the ages with a good mechanism for uniting in solidarity. His second claim though is the one I'd like to disagree with- the point is that any political sentiment bound to an irrational body (and Matthew as I hope a good Burkean conservative could acknowledge that nationalism is both irrational and a good thing) must be moderate if it isn't to lead to catastrophe. The problem about nationalism is that it can so easily over spill into adherance to a national government, condemnation beyond the prudential of things that are are unnational or against the nation, resentment of outsiders and the kind of war fury say that possessed Europeans in 1914. Matthew I think would acknowledge all of this- the point I would make to him is that nationalism's power need not be based on a distorted image of the truth, but rather upon an emotional insight- that something binds me to this group of people. Emotional insights can be very powerful- love for example is one of the most powerful forces in the world- yet they need not, as love does not, call upon us to make judgements about what is. We all know that the judgements we make under their sway are provisional and must be reconsidered by reason. For me nationalism is not something that proceeds out of reason- its something that is an emotional reaction. Hence reason should arbitrate over it- and maybe that can help us avoid extremism.

I apologise for any incoherence- one of the things about arguing with good friends like Matthew- who are also very intelligent is that you can rely upon them to extract the good things from an argument and ignore the dross. I'm under a bit of pressure at the moment- but I hope this makes you think- and I'm looking forward to his answer.

The Last Scene of Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries is one of the greatest films ever made- it stands as one of the principle acheivements of one of the principle directors, Ingmar Bergman, who worked in the modern world. Bergman's camera and his actors, particularly Victor Sjostrom, carve out in the film the tale of an old man journeying through Sweden and back through his life. This film is meditative and is about ideas- you don't need to be ignorant of the end in order to watch the film- there is no such thing as a spoiler here because the film is more like a poem than a film, and like a poem, it is both beautiful and profound.

Throughout the film, Sjostrom's character remembers his past, he goes back to young loves, middle aged marriage and to his parents' house in Sweden- to his childhood, his brothers, sisters, cousin and first girlfriend to find the resolution of his life. Memory in Sjostrom's world though gives this film a wonderful completeness- there is a gentleness in the way that Bergman films Sjostrom's memories. The ideal in the film is love- the way that people can relate to one another and can love one another- can stretch across the void which separates subjective intelligences from one another and can somehow bridge that divide with sympathetic imagination and with openness. Sjostrom's mother we are told has become dead herself- not because she is but because she has become frozen up, he himself and his own son have stepped towards death because they failed to open up their hearts to others. Death in this film is not so much a state as a psychological state- to live is to love in the fullest sense of that word, to feel both empathy and sympathy for another human being, to die is not to.

In that sense one of the most powerful scenes of the film comes right at the end. As Sjostrom lies preparing to go to sleep, a dream comes to him and he the old man returns to the house of his youth, and runs across the fields with his childhood love Sara towards his parents waving to him on the other side of the lake. We see the final shot of the film, Sjostrom smiling across at them in a kind of seraphic heavenly bliss and we realise that love does endure and provides happiness and content beyond the grave. Sjostrom's beatific smile and the notion of acceptance that parental love, remembered parental love, gives him are some of the most lasting impressions of this film which states firmly that human connection is what makes us alive. In that last scene we see that in Sjostrom's dream though his parents are dead, they live on, smiling and waving on a far shore with the acceptance and promise of a profound love that can sustain him in his 78th year.

There is much more to write about this film- but I just thought this might be a start and an advert to those that haven't seen it.

February 05, 2007

For his next turn David Cameron will appear as Stanley Baldwin!


This article from Conservative Home written by Political Betting's Mike Smithson looks at the likely result of the next General Election. He prophesies that the Conservative Party will most likely get the largest share of the vote, come second in terms of seats but that there will be a hung Parliament. Smithson argues that the likeliest outcome is a Conservative Government backed from the backbenches by the Liberal Democrats. I don't want to speculate on the numbers- its a long way out, we don't know how Prime Minister Brown will turn out or how the electorate's mood will change- any number of things (a big terrorist attack?) which are unforseeable could change the way that the public view the elections. But lets take Mr Smithson's view as an accurate depiction of what might happen- that the Tories end up in coalition formally or informally with the Liberal Democrats.

One of the most interesting things about that scenario as Smithson acknowledges is that it isn't that far away from the scenario in which the national governments of the early 1930s operated. Stanley Baldwin as Leader of the conservative party found that coalition government suited him much better than did. As Graham Stewart documented in his wonderful book on the parallel careers of Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, Baldwin's main problem in the 20s and 30s was healing the splits in the Tories left by the Carlton House rebellion of 1922 and cemented by controversies over protection and India in the thirties. The Tories won the 1931 election, but won it on a national ticket alongside Labour and some Liberals- because of that Baldwin was able to exclude and marginalise the right of the party- carrying India reform and excluding Churchill by reminding the Tories that they were in a coalition government.

One can imagine likewise Cameron using the threat of the Liberal withdrawel of support to charm some of the wild men on his backbenches. One of the interesting questions is whether in an age of hysterical bloggers and celebrity status for rebels this would work- my sense though is that at the moment the Tories are so starved of power, so hungry to get in and do some of what they would want that they might accept such a deal- particularly if they were not the largest party in the Commons- in return for getting into Government. In that sense David Cameron like Stanley Baldwin could find it very helpful not to have a pure Conservative ministry- but to have to accomodate some liberal measures and even maybe Liberal men to accompany his Tory revival.

Gracchi at Imagined Community

I promised last week to post some links to the work I'd done for Ian at Imagined Community- so here is what I've done over the last week- the later ones may not be as well worked out because of circumstances but I hope there is something here to enjoy:

Last Sunday I wrote about the influence of Mongol culture upon the early Modern Mughal Empire in India

On Tuesday I picked up a different theme- analysing an article by William Pfaff about America and International Relations

On Thursday I briefly surveyed in an inexpert way some articles on the modern Chinese understanding of Mao

On Saturday I looked into the way that Rupert Everett the actor wrote his biography and what that showed us about biography as a genre

And today I wrote a brief summary of two blog articles from elsewhere which looked into 1 Sam 16.24

I hope there is something there to amuse and interest you!